How I Became Aware of Racism

I’ve been thinking about how old I was when I first became aware of the idea of racism.  I grew up in a small Mennonite Canadian town where almost everyone was white.  Take a look at my elementary and junior high school class pictures and that’s clearly evident.

Three things stand out in my mind when I think of racism awareness in my childhood and teen years.  

My Grade Five Class in 1963 with our teacher Mr Klassen. 

In grade five I had a very innovative teacher, Mr Helmut Klassen.  I loved him because we did all sorts of hands-on projects. He taught us how to have a debate. We learned the rules and format of debating, and the best way to prepare and present our case.  

The topic of one of the debates we had in our class was whether black and white people should be treated equally. I argued for the affirmative and the research and planning I did for that debate was probably my first introduction to racism.  I can still see myself up on the stage at the old Southwood School in Steinbach drawing an illustration on a portable chalk blackboard to illustrate one of my points.

Now, of course, the very fact that we had a DEBATE over whether there should be racial equality seems hard to believe. I memorized a poem to recite during that debate called Incident.  It was by a black American writer Countee Cullen and it brought me to tears every time I read it. I can still recite it by heart. You can read it here. 

I will never forget that around the same time I heard an elderly relative of mine use the N-word.  And I remember how horrified I was. I knew enough about racism to be shocked. My mother explained that the woman had grown up in the American south and it was a word she used out of habit. I knew her as the sweetest and kindest of souls but it got me thinking about how even ‘good people’ could be racist and how I might be racist too. Then in high school, I read a book called Five Smooth Stones by Ann Fairbairn. It was published the year I was thirteen but I was a bit older when I read it. I don’t remember where I got it. I was a voracious reader growing up in a town without a library so I was always gathering books like a packrat, from a whole variety of sources.  

The novel was the life story of a young man named David, a civil rights activist from Mississippi.  The title alluded to the Biblical hero David who challenged the giant Goliath with only five smooth stones as his weapons. Part of the attraction of the novel for me was David’s turbulent romantic relationship with a white woman named Sara. It faced insurmountable obstacles because of the laws against interracial marriage, but the 900-page saga also introduced me, a sheltered white teenager, to the horrors of the Jim Crow laws, legal discrimination and the legacy of slavery.  

I read and re-read it many times until the book was literally falling apart.  I just looked it up on Good Reads and was surprised how many people said that growing up in the 1960s this book was what shook their world of white privilege.  I haven’t read it in decades and I am sure it would seem dated were I to read it now, and certainly would seem less than authentic because it was penned by a white author, but at the time it was such an eye-opener. 

If you are white and of a generation similar to mine how did you become aware of the idea of racism? 

Other posts……….

Racism- Pure and Simple

A Display of Racist Anger

A Racist Statue



Filed under Books, Education, Politics

3 responses to “How I Became Aware of Racism

  1. Ralph Friesen

    Books make a difference! Thanks for your thoughtful post. When I was 19 or 20, 1964-5, I read James Baldwin (Go Tell it on the Mountain, The Fire Next Time) and was mightily impressed by his powerful language, depicting racism in the U. S.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “If you are white and of a generation similar to mine how did you become aware of the idea of racism?”

    A great question and one I think about a lot; lately, of course, but it’s been a troublesome topic for a long time. Like you, I grew up in a place and time where race was a given, a weighty one, and not always with a friendly consequence.

    To answer your question… I remember the summer 1962 day, the moment in fact… who I was with (my cousin Doug)… and where we were (in the shade, sitting on the steps at Penner Electric, eating jawbreakers from Jimmy’s Grill).

    In 2016, I wrote a story* about that incident—partly truth and partly fiction—and it stirred up lots of difficult thoughts. Still does. The upshot for me was a more clear recollection of the biases and assumptions that were given an uncomfortable nudge in those days, in our town. It’s true, without hyperbole or spite that the nudge came mostly from the news: the Winnipeg Tribune and the Pembina, ND television station and their coverage of ominous trouble in the southern distance.

    As a young teen, I read “Black Like Me” and “Jackie Robinson: My Own Story”. These and others led me to “Invisible Man” and more. These books in particular (one now out of favour, but it was important to me) suggested different ways to think about the confusing things that were slowly becoming more common in Steinbach.



    • Great story Mitch. I do recognize some of the characters and wondered if you talked to other people who knew Mr. Vogel or just based your story on your own memories. I worked for Mr Vogel’s son and his wife for many years as a writer for the Mennonite magazine they edited and produced and learned more about Mr Vogel that way then I did living in Steinbach. I too had been thinking about Jimmy’s Grill because I wondered if there were any children from that family in school with me, but I don’t think so. My experience was a little different than yours because we didn’t have a television till I was almost eleven and I don’t remember getting the daily paper either. Strange. I had not seen the Fiction on the Web site before either. Looks like its a great place to get feedback on your writing.

      Liked by 1 person

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